“On the waterfront.” Immediately San Francisco comes to mind. It conjures images of ships, passengers, and cargo. Foghorns, and watercraft; sea birds calling, seals barking, bike bells ringing. The salty Pacific air is invigorating. Through the early evening fog, the Bay Lights on the San Francisco Bay Bridge have an ethereal glow. Ferries arrive and depart, to and from ferry terminals around the bay. Cruise ships head out under the Golden Gate and vanish in the fog.
Visitors from around the globe and locals alike stroll along San Francisco’s Embarcadero. From end-to-end, you immerse in the city’s diverse history, natural wonders, manmade marvels, intoxicating food, and an eclectic parade of people. You can find solitude or buzzy crowds. The Embarcadero is a collage of new and historic. Exploring this area is the best place to soak-up the City by the Bay.
What’s an Embarcadero?
San Francisco’s eastern waterfront, the Embarcadero, is a harbor and a roadway skirting San Francisco Bay. Embarcadero means “the place to embark” in Spanish. Holding back the seawater, and creating dockage, the Embarcadero seawall was constructed on reclaimed wetlands. Construction began in the 1860s and concluded in the 1920s.
Piers jut out into the bay along the almost three miles of city street and waterfront. Once, one of the world’s busiest seaports, San Francisco received and shipped goods from around the globe to inland California and the rest of the country. Today most of the piers house eateries, shopping, bars, tourist attractions, event centers, and parking garages. Most cargo ships go to Oakland to load and unload.
A Self-guided Embarcadero tour
San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park
You’ll be captivated for hours at the home of Hyde Street Pier, San Francisco Maritime Museum, and Aquatic Park. San Francisco’s long and colorful maritime culture is preserved and presented in a park, an old bathhouse, and sailing vessels tied to the dock.
This is a perfect first-stop on your Embarcadero tour. You’ll learn about the lives of those that lived, worked, and escaped to and from San Francisco Bay. They were sailors, soldiers, craftsman, dreamers, wealthy merchants, servants, and slaves.
The park has a sand beach, a swimming cove, and picnicking with a Golden Gate Bridge view. At the top of the park is a cable car turnaround. It’s great fun to watch the completely man-powered process, and a lovely way to arrive at the start of your expedition.
San Francisco Fisherman Wharf
The Fisherman Wharf is easily the most popular destination in San Francisco. It is also one of the busiest on the west coast. The wharf has been home to the Bay’s fishing fleet for many generations. The tradition continues today.
Filled with tourist attractions, buskers, eateries, bars, and people, it can be a navigational challenge. It’s a bit of a circus at times. When several tour busses unload at the same time, the streets are crowded.
Avoid the crowds by stepping off the main drag and exploring the fishing docks. The quietest time of day is early morning. Crowds are almost non-existent. Fishermen are at work preparing for a day’s catch. During crab season colorful crab traps are piled high. The docks are busy, watch out for forklifts.
The area is a popular entertainment destination. This busy place boasts two levels of dining, entertainment, shopping, and attractions. PIER 39 is home to sea lions at K-Dock.
The Aquarium of the Bay is a family-friendly way to soak-up San Francisco at Pier 39. You can book bay cruises, cycling tours, go whale watching, enjoy musical and acrobatic performances, shop and feast on local seafood, wine, and beer.
A fun and exciting multi-generational “public learning laboratory for exploring the world through science, art, and human perception.” It’s hard to explain, but the experiences will be remembered for a lifetime.
For 50-years this institution has been creating ‘explorers’ in the arts and sciences. I’m one of them. Hands-on exhibits change frequently, so there is always something new to experience like how sensitive a seismograph is just by stamping your feet, or how our eyes play tricks on us with the Bird in a Cage experience.
Ferry Building, the city’s crossroads
At the main entrance, above the crowd’s heads is a ferry schedule. It changes with the arrival and departure of my favorite way to travel, ferries. The old-school train station sign makes an interesting clicking sound as the letters and numbers flip over.
From early morning until late evening the building is a bustling throng of commuters, shoppers, and tourist. But there’s more here than a transportation center, it’s a shopping center, restaurant mall, and a weekend farmers market. Wine bars, wine shops, cheesemongers, bakers, coffee, tea, and every genre of food imaginable line the corridors of the great hall.
This is an ideal place to taste San Francisco. Buy picnic supplies. Bread, cheese, and wine plus other irresistible munchies can be enjoyed somewhere along the way or back in your hotel.
San Francisco—Oakland Bay Bridge
This grand bridge spans the bay connecting San Francisco to Oakland. The bridge is beautiful from any distance or angle. On either side of the bridge, you find public fishing piers. Stroll to the end and watch the world float by. This area is also filled with sculpture, pocket playgrounds, benches, and picnic spots.
The home of the San Francisco Giants has more to do than watch baseball.
The ocean view park has a playground for kids and adults that is free and open every non-game day. Explore the stadium with a behind the scenes tour. Attend concerts, races, rugby matches, and Cirque du Soleil. Immerse in SF Giants history. Honor great players at the Wall of Fame. Eat, shop, learn to cook. Kayak into Covey Cove for a Splash-Hit catch. Picnic and play catch, commune with locals and Giant Fans.
Eating in San Francisco
Food in San Francisco is legendary. It’s hard to go wrong along the Embarcadero. Be adventurous, have a roaming dinner. Stop in one place for cocktails and appetizer, another for entrees, and a third for coffee and dessert. You can do the same for lunch or brunch.
For an Embarcadero tour, I like Harbor Court. Located across the street from the Ferry Building and two blocks from the Embarcadero transit center, the location is perfect. I’ve stayed here many times. It’s a small boutique hotel, set in the historic YMCA Building on the waterfront. Get a Bay View room for spectacular views of the Bay Bridge Lights and the waterfront.
There are several other hotels in this area if Harbor Court is booked.
San Francisco or Oakland International are the closest airports for flying to the city.
DON’T DRIVE – it will induce insanity. Take public transit. BART Trains service both airports and will take you directly to Embarcadero Transit Center. Uber is fast and inexpensive in the city.
I’ve mentioned some of the big attractions, but there’s plenty more to do and see in this part of San Francisco on the waterfront.
All photos by Mary Charlebois. Featured photo: Hyde Street Pier, San Francisco Embarcadero.
p.s. Have you read Mary Charlebois’ 4 California Wine Country Alternatives to Napa Valley?